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MARSHALL, MINN. -- It took Craig Schafer "all of three seconds" to jump at the chance.
It was the summer of 2002 and Schafer was in New York to learn all he could about the city's recovery from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an emergency response specialist from southwestern Minnesota.
As he inspected the crumpled remains of the World Trade Center towers at a Staten Island landfill, a sanitation director told him he could take one of the charred steel beams back home if he wished.
It was "an absolute automatic, a no brainer," Schafer said.
Two months later, he would return to Staten Island to pick up a nearly 10-foot, 600-pound vertical box beam and haul it to Marshall. By the time the 10th anniversary of the attacks arrives this fall, the scarred piece of steel will stand as the centerpiece of a memorial honoring the nearly 3,000 firefighters, police officers and civilians who died that day. The city of Marshall is planning a daylong ceremony to unveil it.
The memorial is believed to be one of the first in the state built from World Trade Center remains that commemorates the tragic events of that day. It joins other memorials emerging across the country as cities from Vermont to Texas secure pieces of the fallen towers.
In the past two years alone, chunks of steel ranging from 6 inches to 43 feet have been sent from New York to all 50 states and seven foreign countries. In Minnesota, a half-dozen fire departments have requested or received pieces of the towers, according to Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. So have the Mound police department and Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
"To me, it was so important that that image of what happened on September 11 not get lost," said Schafer, a 54-year-old history buff who works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
'There is a presence there'
No one from Marshall died in the attacks. But to Schafer and others in this prairie town of nearly 14,000 people 150 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, the tragedy felt personal.
"We're all tied together," said hardware store owner Lyle Patzer. "I just think, we're all one across the nation."
Even now, Schafer, an enthusiastic man with a passion for technical detail, chokes up when he talks of the planes hitting the office towers, of two skyscrapers burning, buckling and crashing to earth.
"It was such a significant event in everyone's life, and it did change the country," he said.
Securing a piece of history wasn't on Schafer's mind when he traveled to New York in December 2001 to meet with officials about 9/11 cleanup and recovery. His task was to determine whether Minnesota was prepared in the event of a similar attack on potential targets such as the Mall of America, the IDS Tower or the Metrodome.
"I almost felt guilty being out there," said Schafer, a debris specialist who has worked many local disasters, including the 1997 Minnesota River flooding and the 1998 tornado that leveled the small town of Comfrey, Minn. "You feel like a parasite gaining knowledge out of somebody's catastrophe. But you hope that you can learn something."
On a return trip to New York eight months later, Schafer toured a dump site where much of the grayish rubble of Ground Zero was taken to be screened for evidence and human remains.
"You could smell death," he said. It gave him chills. "There is a presence there. It was unbelievable. Indescribable. You couldn't get your arms around all the different emotions."
Later, when the sanitation director and an FBI official told him that some of the beams and other artifacts had been saved for communities and organizations that might want them for commemorative purposes, Schafer got inspired.
He phoned Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith, who said "I think we need to go for it." When he got back to Marshall, Mayor Bob Byrnes quickly signed on to the idea.
Two months later, Schafer and a MPCA colleague borrowed a pickup truck and a flatbed trailer. They headed east, paying their own way in gas, tolls, food and lodging.
At the Staten Island landfill, they picked out a beam, had it hoisted on the trailer and drove 1,400 miles home.
"Every place we stopped to buy gas, or everywhere we stopped, even at a tollbooth, people knew what that was," Schafer said. "They'd see it and say, 'Oh my God, is that from ground zero?'
Making history tangible
Several days later, Schafer dropped the beam at the Marshall fire hall, where it stayed for several years while city officials discussed how best to display it.
Finally, they hit on the idea of showcasing the beam in the heart of downtown, near the busiest intersection, near the banks of the Redwood River.
After years of fundraising, they broke ground on the $400,000 project in May, just days after 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed. Construction crews have raced all summer to push dirt, pour concrete and lay the park's foundation in hopes of meeting their deadline to have it ready for the tenth anniversary.
"In my wildest dreams I never would have thought it would get to this," Klaith said recently, walking the site. "I'm still in awe."
Architectural drawings show the beam set in the center of the park, tilting slightly east -- toward New York City. A 1,000-watt bulb inside of it will flash a ray of light skyward at night. Nearby, red, blue and black stars will be set in brick to honor the firefighters, police officers and civilians who died on 9/11.
"We were trying to create a place in honor of those who perished," said landscape architect Gene F. Ernst. "We also wanted to create a place that would give people an opportunity to reflect on the event, a space where you could pause and sit."
Ernst said city officials have tried over the years to determine the beam's position in the Trade Center complex. So far, they've had no luck.
But to Schafer, all that matters is that people see it, touch it and reflect on that day.
"The beam will mean something different to everybody," he said. "Some will see the pain of that day, others will think about the healing and rebuilding.
"But my hope is that 40 years from now when that 12-year-old is standing by that beam and hears about 9/11, that it gives him that tangible piece of history, and he somehow learns from that.
"My hope is that people go back and at least learn from it, so they can honor it. There are positives that come out of that if we tell the story."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425